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Books

A writer in the White House

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Dreams_from_my_father

It was such a pleasure reading Dreams From My Father. It doesn’t read like a book written by a politician at all. Barack Obama has the novelist’s touch. How can you put down a book with passages like this?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revellers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hassan at his new lady’s place – don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.

I’m a fool… to want you.
Such a fool… to want you.

It’s pure magic, Barack Obama describing the night after a college party makes you feel his loneliness as he listens to the music in his room.

He describes winter in Chicago and how it affected his work as a community organizer:

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Books India

Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.

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Books

Jhumpa Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth

jhumpa_lahiri_ Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.

What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.

Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.

But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:

Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.

But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:

It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.

As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:

I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.

Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:

I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.

The Indian connection is fading.

None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That's a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.